Once found all over the city, Helsinki’s public saunas were all but lost for over half a century. Now, this beloved Finnish tradition is being completely reimagined with a new generation of public saunas.
There was a time when there was a public sauna on almost every corner of the Finnish capital. Helsinki was a spa city and saunas were its social clubs. Then, after the Second World War, most of them closed down as new residential apartment buildings with their own saunas went up.
But now, thanks to a combination of urban regeneration, entrepreneurship, and citizen action, a new generation of public saunas is heating things up in Helsinki.
Four new seaside saunas – Allas Sea Pool, Löyly, Lonna, and Sompasauna – have all been designed to encourage locals to embrace the traditional and social benefits of public saunas, but also to attract tourists looking to experience something totally Finnish.
Make a splash
The tradition of Helsinki as a spa city with the sauna at its heart was lost for more than half a century and is now being revitalised by the team behind Allas, or “Pool” in Finnish. Located right off the city’s Market Square, Allas has three saunas – male, female, and mixed.
The saunas lead out on to a massive floating pool deck with three pools: the large freshwater pools (one for adults and one for kids) and the seawater pool filled with purified water straight from the Baltic Sea.
Raoul Grünstein is one of the forces behind Allas. His company, the Korjaamo Group, came up with the idea to turn what was then a parking lot into a floating urban oasis back in 2006. More than 11 years later, Allas finally opened its doors to the public in 2017.
Grünstein and his team scouted lots of locations, but nothing even came close to this one. “We wanted the clear contrast between being in the very centre of urban life and the slow life at Allas,” Grünstein says.
The sauna is definitely a big part of that slow life philosophy. Almost a holy place for Finns, spending time in the sauna has what Grünstein calls “a meditative quality.” And you’ll find that same quality even in a large public sauna like Allas.
That said, Allas is designed to be a place where you can spend the whole day relaxing, socialising, and moving leisurely between the sauna, pool, outdoor spaces, and restaurants.
Regular events include outdoor concerts, moonlight skinny dipping, swimming lessons by Olympic swimmers Jani Sievinen and Hanna-Maria Seppälä, and sauna yoga, which is exactly what you’re probably imagining. The restaurant, Neighbour Bistro, serves up old Helsinki’s favourites with a new twist.
And don’t worry, you are allowed to wear your bathing suit in the sauna. But if you want to do things Finnish-style, leave your suit and go au naturel.
Allas etiquette: Take it easy. Do it your own way. Have fun. Don’t break the law.
- Katajanokanlaituri 2a, right off Market Square.
- Open Monday – Friday from 6:15 am to 11 pm.
- Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 am to 11 pm.
- €12 for adults, €6 for kids 3 – 11, free for kids under 3.
- Walk or take the tram to Market Square.
World’s most public sauna
The 20-minute walk from the Kalasatama metro station to its southern-most tip feels like you’re on the set of a Mad Max movie. It’s basically a wasteland-cum-massive construction site, with huge piles of gravel and the odd graffiti-covered cement slab. But make this trek off the beaten path and you’ll be rewarded with an entirely different kind of beating – with a birch whisk at the guerrilla-style Sompasauna.
The tiny, self-service Sompasauna is two shack saunas on the banks of the Gulf of Finland just next to one of the city’s most up-and-coming neighbourhoods, Kalasatama. The smaller sauna fits three to four people and is heated up to a scorching 140 degrees Celsius (284 degrees Fahrenheit). The main sauna is cooler and more social, with room for 16 to 20 people.
The story behind Sompasauna is almost as quaint as the saunas themselves. In 2011, a group of friends found an old abandoned wood-burning sauna stove in a forest in northern Helsinki. So, they did what any self-respecting Finn would do and built a sauna around it.
After hearing about the new sauna from some friends, Saara Louhensalo was one of its very first visitors. Today she’s one of Sompasauna’s unofficial hosts.
According to Louhensalo, Sompasauna is an experiment in “radical openness.” It’s open every day around the clock, it’s completely free, and there’s no gender separation.
And there’s also no staff, which means the saunas have to be heated by visitors. If you’ve never heated a sauna yourself, fear not, there’s a guidebook to walk you through it. One of the handiest instructions is: “If you need help, it’s best to ask a Finn.”
Whether you’re looking for love or just some good löyly, remember to bring a towel, clean water to wash with, and some beverages. There’s also an open-fire grill where you can cook the quintessential sauna food: sausages.
Sompasauna etiquette: Don’t throw seawater on the stones because of the salt. Do have fun and enjoy the view of the city and the famous icebreakers docked in Katajanokka.
- Open every day, 24 hours a day.
- Take the bus or metro to Kalasatama and walk about 20 minutes to the southern tip.
Take it slow
Although it was designed to be synonymous with its seaside environment, you can’t help but notice Löyly as you approach. The wood façade changes with the weather – darker in the rain and lighter and brighter when it’s sunny.
And as you get closer, you begin to smell it. The welcoming scent of smoke, tar, and birch. Löyly – pronounced “low-lew” is the steam that comes off the sauna stove when you throw water on the stones. It’s the soul of the sauna.
Antero Vartia is one of Löyly’s owners and also a member of the Finnish parliament. His business partner is Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen. Before starting the project, the pair travelled to New York and Los Angeles and went to dozens of the best restaurants and venues they could find. The ones they loved most had one thing in common: attention to detail. They spared no expense (the project came in around €2 million over budget) as they sourced the best materials, interiors, and sauna stoves on the market.
Löyly sits on the shore of Hernesaari, not far from the city centre. It has three different saunas that are all heated with birch wood: a continuously-heated sauna, a once-heated sauna that’s heated early in the morning and stays warm all day, and a traditional smoke sauna. The smoke sauna is a real rarity in urban public saunas and the overwhelming favourite of Finnish guests. All of the saunas are heated and maintained by Löyly’s own saunamestari or sauna master.
In addition to the saunas, Löyly also has a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, spaces for private parties, and two large outdoor decks. There is also a lovely chill-out area in between the saunas with an open fire.
And if you’re wondering why public saunas are so hot right now, Vartia has a theory. The sauna has always been such an ordinary part of everyday life in Finland that its value as an export or local attraction has been overlooked.
“Finns are extremely humble, but we should to be more ambitious about promoting national treasures like the sauna. There is a balance, which I call being ‘hambitious’,” Vartia says.
Löyly etiquette: Do be considerate of other people. Always ask if it’s OK to throw löyly. Otherwise the only rule is there are no rules.
- Hernesaarenranta 4
- Open Mondays from 4 – 10 pm, Tuesday to Sunday from 1 – 10 pm. There’s a morning sauna on Thursdays and Saturdays from 7:30 – 9:30 am.
- The number 14 bus stops right outside.
- €19 per person for two hours.
It used to be that the only way to see Helsinki’s tiny Lonna Island was as you sailed by on your way to the fortress island, Suomenlinna.
In the summer of 2014, the former military island was renovated and opened to the general public. And in May of 2017, the Lonna sauna became the island’s newest attraction.
Ville Wäänänen’s family business, Fregatti Ltd., helps operate the island. The new sauna was built by the governing body of Suomenlinna to replace an old military sauna that was too small and too old to use.
The concept behind the Lonna sauna is to recreate Finland’s traditional sauna culture. “My team and I thought about the best sauna experiences we’ve had ourselves and they were all at our grandparents’ cottages as kids,” Wäänänen says.
Although there are outdoor showers to rinse the seawater off after a dip in the Baltic Sea, visitors wash themselves by mixing hot and cold water in large barrels. Just as you would have done had you grown up spending summers at your Finnish grandparents’ summer cottage.
Another unique feature of the Lonna sauna is that it’s on two levels. The benches on the upper level are for enjoying the sauna and the lower level is for cooling off and washing.
There are two saunas – one for men and one for women. They use 1,200 kilograms (2,646 pounds) of stones heated by Lonna’s saunamajuri – or sauna major – who comes with his son to heat the saunas six hours before opening.
“Warming this sauna is a science. It really depends on the wind and the temperature, and there’s no way anyone else would know how to do it,” Wäänänen says.
While the island offers amazing views of the Helsinki skyline, the sauna side of the island faces the archipelago, giving you the feeling that you really are outside the city.
And with the island’s popular Waffle Bar serving the sauna and an à la carte restaurant serving up local fare, all you have to do is sit back, relax, and take it all in.
Lonna etiquette: Don’t jump into the water head-first, it’s shallow. Do talk to other people. And do remember to drink lots of water.
- Open from early May to late September.
- Open Tuesday to Saturday from 2 pm to 9 pm.
- Ferries leave from Market Square and the ride takes just 10 minutes.
- €16 per person for two hours.
Text by Lissu Moulton Photos by Jani Laukkanen
This article is published in the Summer 2017 issue of Blue Wings.